Science: Do We Choose to Be Good? No, Say Some Biologists, Free Will Is an Illusion, Our Choice of Behavi Our Being Genetically Predetermined. but What about Language? Doesn't That Distinguish Us from the Birds and the Bees?
Sanjida O'Connell, The Independent (London, England)
Angels, apparently, have no free will. God gave them one choice, to be good or evil, and those who did not become angels of darkness were allowed to reside in heaven. But Man, according to the scriptures, had free will and the capacity for evil. Free will is a concept we have struggled with for thousands of years, but biologists are now increasingly wresting the issue from the hands of theologians and philosophers. Could it be that our biological make-up limits our ability to make choices?
Free will, as it has classically been defined, is the capacity to "do otherwise". Professor Steve Jones, from University College London, states in his book In the Blood: "Humans are, in the end, animals: for any pattern of behaviour, the question is not whether biology is involved, but how."
This is the paradox of free will phrased in the language of science: if our appearance, personality and behaviour are controlled by genes that we have inherited, and we live in a physical environment that can be measured and calculated, freedom of will may be an illusion generated by a brain created by the interaction of 30,000 genes. We may think we are choosing; in reality, we could not do otherwise than we do. Before modern genetics, free will was solely the prerogative of the Church. The fourth-century British theologian Pelagius argued that Man is responsible for his actions, be they good or evil. The Church saw this as a dangerous position, since it minimised the role of God and the power of the Church, and the author was excommunicated for his pains. The current position of the Catholic Church is that we are responsible for our own decisions, and can reject God if we choose. St Augustine said: "God who made us without our consent cannot save us without our consent." But the answer to the problem may well lie in the heartland of biology, rather than philosophy or theology. That our world is mechanistic and can be predetermined to some extent is an argument put forward by Professor Edward Wilson, of Harvard University, in his book On Human Nature. It is possible to imagine a computer that might be able to predict whether a coin would land heads or tails. This computer would measure the physical properties of a coin to the exact micron, analyse the contours of a person's thumb, her muscle physiology, the air currents of the room, and the microtopography and resilience of the table the coin will land upon. At the moment the coin is released, the force and angle of the flip are fed into a computer. Before the coin has spun through more than a few revolutions, the computer reports the expected full trajectory of the coin and its final resting position. The computer's predictions wouldn't be error-free, but it might be possible to foretell the coin's final destination at a rate well above chance. Predicting the path of a coin is small beer compared to the flight of a bird, or the song of a whale. Surely, it is not possible to map out the behaviour of an animate creature with desires and motivations of its own? Wilson thinks it is. Imagine a honey bee, that will die before it's 50 days old; during this time, it will have created a map in its mind's eye of the area where it lives, and it can recognise the odour of its nest mates, and the quality of nectar of several hundred kinds of flower. If a bee is held in the palm of the hand and then tossed into the air, it appears to be a free agent, bound to travel where it wills. But, Wilson says: "If we were to concentrate all we know about the physical properties of thimble-sized objects, the nervous system of insects, the behavioural peculiarities of honey bees, and the personal history of this particular bee, and if the most advanced computational techniques were brought to bear, we might predict the flight path of the bee with an accuracy that exceeds pure chance. To the circle of human observers watching the computer …
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Publication information: Article title: Science: Do We Choose to Be Good? No, Say Some Biologists, Free Will Is an Illusion, Our Choice of Behavi Our Being Genetically Predetermined. but What about Language? Doesn't That Distinguish Us from the Birds and the Bees?. Contributors: Sanjida O'Connell - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: June 11, 1999. Page number: 9. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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